Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

I have already highlighted some benefits of getting a CELTA in this post about teaching qualifications. You can also read my tips for passing the course with a good grade. I did my CELTA at CELT Athens and it was an amazing experience. The feedback I received was really valuable because I’d had no teaching experience prior to the course. Several years have passed since then, but I still remember my tutors’ advice. Let me share a few important principles that I follow to this day.

Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

You have to grade your language
I felt really satisfied with the first English lesson of my life; everything went well and I was proud of my performance. Then my tutor told me that showing off is not a good strategy in the classroom. I was talking too fast and using words way above my learners’ level. I remember that I said, ‘Technically, that’s right’ at one point of the lesson. When I came home, I checked the word ‘technically’ in a dictionary and found out that it’s supposed to be used at C2 level. I taught pre-intermediate students that day.

Speaking fast and using fancy words is fine when presenting at a conference, but talking to your students requires you to adapt your language to their current level of English. They need to be exposed to comprehensible input, so slowing down your speech and adjusting your language is certainly a step in the right direction.

You are talking to human beings
At first I thought that this comment was rather amusing, but then I realised the tutor was referring to building rapport with students. They are more than just an item on the attendance list. I know that talking to complete strangers can be a daunting experience, and that’s why a bit of small talk before or after a lesson is extremely helpful. My lessons are more engaging when I know my students’ professions, hobbies, academic background, etc. That knowledge allows me to personalise the lessons and focus on what the learners find relevant.

Another important word here is humility. I believe that my students have amazing talents and abilities that can range from mathematics to sports, music, etc. They can’t express themselves perfectly in a foreign language, but that doesn’t detract anything from what they can do in other areas. I always ask my students to talk about what they are professionally or academically involved in, and I have actually learnt a lot of new things in the process. I love what Hugh Dellar said in this video:

“First and foremost, good teachers care about the people that they’re in the room with. They care about them on a human level. They care about their feelings, their emotions, their lives, their well-being. Because of that, they care about how well they’re progressing academically. They care about what might be stopping them from progressing well academically. They care about their presence. They care about their involvement in the class. They care about their interactions with other students and with themselves.”

You are not talking to grammarians
Grammar knowledge definitely plays an important role in language learning. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to expect the learners to memorise all kinds of technical terms. Knowing metalanguage can be useful, but I’ve met students who could identify past participles, complements and adverbials without having the ability to string a few sentences together in their spoken production. I think it makes more sense to focus on performance and successful communication with other people.

I spent a few months tutoring a teenager who was struggling with English at school. Her vocabulary was limited and she didn’t know how to produce complex sentences. When she asked me for help with her homework, I was shocked to see that she was expected to pass a test full of complicated verb forms, including the future perfect progressive! Who in their right mind would think that kind of crap is appropriate for a pre-intermediate learner? How exactly was she supposed to benefit from that? No wonder many students end up hating English when they have to memorise unnecessary rules instead of doing something useful.

Just let them talk
Working with people who are naturally talkative in their native language is good fun. If you live in Colombia and speak Spanish, you will inevitably participate in long conversations on all kinds of topics. Of course, it’s not always easy to take advantage of that trait and make the students speak as much as possible in English. The problem is when the teacher is the most talkative person in the room because you may then witness something like this: 

Teacher: Good morning, how are you? Good? That’s great. How was your weekend? What did you do? Nothing? Really?
Student 1: Sleeping.
Teacher: Sleeping? Yes, me too. I also went to the cinema to see The Avengers. I thought it was amazing. Did you like it?
Student 2: Yes.
Teacher: Yes, that’s great. I loved the part when…

You get the picture. The learners can barely get a word in because the lesson is dominated by a teacher with superior language skills. If I were a student in that classroom, I would decide to save my money and watch videos on YouTube instead. I might actually learn English faster that way.

My point is that students should be the ones who talk a lot in the classroom. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply shut up and let the learners do most of the talking. I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it more than listening to rambling monologues. You don’t need to go full Dogme and make all your classes based on conversation, but I definitely recommend asking a lot information questions to get people to speak. Just don’t forget to give them enough time to answer!

There is no magic bullet

A new academic year is upon us, and I can’t wait to teach again! It remains to be seen if or when we will return to physical classrooms, but I feel cautiously optimistic about 2021. It can’t get any worse than the previous year, right? The unexpected switch to remote teaching inevitably caused huge issues in the ELT industry. A lot of students decided not to join online courses for various perfectly understandable reasons, which inevitably led to economic problems and job losses in many institutions.

Private language academies now have to convince potential students that paying for English classes is a good idea. Colombian economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and many people need to think twice before spending their money. Businesses are looking for ways to dig themselves out of a hole, and those involved in education are no exception. Some may consider copying their competitors’ practices or even trying something completely new. When it comes to ELT, I have encountered a few ideas that definitely wouldn’t represent a step in the right direction, and I’d like to write a few words about them.

There is no magic bullet

Hiring unqualified teachers
Giving a teaching job to someone whose only qualification is being (or looking like) a native English speaker is usually a recipe for disaster. If you want to avoid the risk of poorly delivered classes full of incoherent rambling, you should hire someone with relevant teaching qualifications. I mean, this is just common sense.

There are plenty of experienced teachers in Colombia looking for work right now. They are ready to hit the ground running, and they deserve to be given a chance to do so. Local teachers are the backbone of any ELT community, and that’s why supporting them should be their employers’ priority. In fact, I believe that providing existing teachers with incentives to get their CELTA, Delta, Master’s degree or other qualifications would be a better long-term strategy than looking for quick fixes from abroad.

Relying on a magic method
I can’t imagine myself teaching from a script. Schools that claim their unique method is the best way to teach aren’t my cup of tea. It’s certainly useful to be familiar with different teaching methods and techniques, but having to use only one of them seems like a missed opportunity to me. Why would you restrict yourself to repeating the same thing again and again? It must get boring pretty fast.

I really don’t think there is just one way to teach. It is imperative to take your teaching context and students’ needs into account instead of applying global solutions. Building rapport and personalising your lessons is much more useful than following some random ‘method’ imposed from the outside.

Peddling debunked myths
I spent most of my life believing the theory that says the left side of the brain controls logic and the right side is responsible for creativity. I heard about it at school and accepted it as something that is true. When I started teaching, I noticed the theory again in some coursebooks, so I decided to read about it a little more. It turns out that the whole thing isn’t true and there is hard data to prove that.

While the left/right brain myth is relatively harmless, some theories are actually applied in teaching practice, and that’s where problems arise. The theory of multiple intelligences is quite attractive, but even its Wikipedia page says that it isn’t supported by evidence. According to the article Each to their own, which was published in The Guardian in 2005, Howard Gardner himself made some damning remarks about using his theory in teaching.

The Harvard professor never intended his book on multiple intelligences (MI) to be a blueprint for learning, but he was aware that many educationalists were adapting his ideas. The shock came on a visit to Australia.

“I learned that an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory,” he says. “The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices – left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity.”

One idea that always seems to pop up is called learning styles. Again, I understand the theory’s appeal, but the problem is that it has been debunked many times. Asking your students to fill in a learning styles questionnaire and then building your classes around the results could actually have detrimental consequences. I recommend that you read The ‘Learning Styles’ Myth: Don’t Spread Fake News by James Egerton. It’s time we stopped wasting our time with this.

It would be unfair to blame the people who came up with these ideas. They thought that they were onto something good, but their theories turned out to be incorrect. That’s quite common, so we should simply move on and focus on something more useful.

Adopting fads and hoping they work
There are some ideas that need to be researched more in order to determine how effective they are. Take growth mindset, for example. I can’t deny that its premise sounds good because self-improvement is undoubtedly a good thing. The issue is that it still isn’t completely clear how growth mindset can be used in the classroom. It all seems to be based on wishful thinking. You should read Philip Kerr’s post A measured approach to mindset interventions for more details. I am not in favour of utilising new ideas in our teaching practice just because they are popular at the moment. Shouldn’t we be primarily concerned with finding out if our students will actually benefit from them?

I understand that it’s tempting to look for simple solutions, but that can lead to losing track of what is truly important. If you want to provide high-quality classes, you have to support your teachers. They need to have access to books and academic papers and be encouraged to read them. They need to get relevant training, be observed, and receive individual feedback on their performance in the classroom. Professional development is a long-term commitment, and I don’t think that taking shortcuts is likely to produce positive results.